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Thomas Larson: The Music Is Always There, Part 1

Reflections on jazz, improvisation, and the New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2014.

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Original art by Annelise Capossela.

By Thomas Larson

A Deviant Nature /

That which we call American music, whether it’s pop, show tunes, Motown, country ’n’ western, or any other mixed breed, is seldom wholly original. It is—it must be, to appeal widely—a sound and a style already known to its composer-musicians, and their audiences, before it’s written. The declamatory songs of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, for example, owe everything to the then-familiar swagger of Woody Guthrie, talking blues, pentatonic Shaker hymns, and backwoods white gospel. These elements the troubadour kept as a foundation even as he evolved and wrote new material based on a lyric élan all his own. Pre-Dylan, Guthrie’s music binds Appalachian hillbilly tunes to topical story songs, which, themselves, owe their fluency to the broad-siders and the balladeers of eighteenth century Scotland and England. And so it goes, way on back. But there is, as always, an exception to the rule. Cultural critic Stanley Crouch argues that African-American gospel, blues, and jazz—styles that standardized the flatted third and seventh, syncopation and polyrhythms, and the chaotic, improvising soloist—are unique in music. In song, Crouch says, there had never been, with African or American music, such tap-rooted anguish as can be found in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” where the melodic genius lies not on but between the notes.

Jazz has always struck me as the most difficult of all music to learn and play because it pushes the musician to extend himself on three fronts: to know the tune, to know how the tune has evolved, and to know how to improvise a new version—in his own voice. These demands are only for the player; the jazz composer has his own epic struggle. Take “Moanin’,” written by Bobby Timmons and recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1958. After stating the tune’s call-and-response melody, the players lay down a lilting groove against which trumpet, sax, piano, and bass solo. A few years on and musicians, making new recordings, adapt the tune to their strengths. It’s vocalized as a kind of pop hymn by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Then, it appears as virtuosic swing in the propulsive hands of pianist Oscar Peterson. Enough renditions and it’s a standard.

What makes jazz so winning is that it seems to resist change while changing before our eyes and ears: the music at once hones to the tradition… and brazenly fucks with it.

Every jazz musician who puts “Moanin’” in his toolbox must be prepared to add another wing or color to the tune’s evolving body. Every jazz musician is asked—must ask himself—two core questions: How does he improve on, or even match, the masters of improvisation before him? How does he reinvent live—in concert, studio, corner bar—the Kamikaze flight of the soloist?

What makes jazz so winning is that it seems to resist change while changing before our eyes and ears: the music at once hones to the tradition (note the many familial pedigrees in jazz: Ellington, Brubeck, Marsalis, Batiste) and brazenly fucks with it. That’s the player’s duty and, in a sense, his paradox. Jazz, then, is whatever one folds into it (Afro-Cuban habanera, ECM minimalism, smooth, avant-garde, hard bop) all the while keeping the art of improvisation germane. It seems strange to say but the jazz musician must re-improvise the music to stay true to its deviant nature.

Nowhere else is jazz the changeable beast, bearing stripes and baring teeth, better than in New Orleans. There, because of its streetwise and nightlife milieu, jazz was born and bred and continues to be reprocessed in and by those auditory spaces where audience and player come together. To understand jazz’s interaction with its space, think of the venues, stationary and moving, in which New Orleans as place, patronage, and play shape improvisation. We can march down Basin Street a century ago: there, the funeral transport and the brass band behind plod dirge-sad to the cemetery (“A Closer Walk with Thee”) and return up-tempo raucous (“I’ll Fly Away”) to the neighborhood. Like a Trojan horse, the music is assembled by the parade rhythms (keeping people in step), by the brass blare (calling people out), and by the sonic adhesion (keeping players and marchers intimate: the closer you are to the sound, the more its pulse aligns with yours). We can strut into a carpet-walled parlor in Storyville, the sailor-cum-whorehouse district of New Orleans, one of many tangy bordellos: there, where money and Madams court musicians, the music is made to rev up the patrons’ drive for liquor and sex. Center stage is the piano and its most tenured professor, Jelly Roll Morton: the upright dominates the main room (the display cage) and seeps through the fabric-dampened walls; Morton sticks to the familiar tunes, mostly for sing-alongs, making the brothel more homey than sordid. The music rises and rags, his left hand pulsing the chords, his right chasing the melody, both in sync and moving crossways, much like coitus.

That’s the tradition—or trad, as it’s called. We can also land in a more recent tableaux. We’re in New Orleans’ Fairview Baptist Church in 1970. There, we hear a loud rumble from an after-school youth program. Danny Barker, a thirteen-year-old banjoist, is reorganizing the church’s band on the retrograde tradition of an old-time brass band. But he adds a twist. The style he develops captures the reverberation of the church walls, unseats the congregation with funk, and stamps the choruses with rap, a young man’s rhyming bravura. Barker and his wild bucks bring along a canny eight-year-old trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, and reflect in their lyrics a mix of art and politics, building on the protest-savvy civil-rights movement and the anxiety-ridden struggle of black men and incarceration. The group will, in a few short years, become the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, funk founders of an all-new trad.

With daily attendance at 60,000, the fest spreads out in its twelve venues, some small and intimate, others sunbaked and picnicky, featuring New Orleans jazz, blues, rock and roll, gospel, funk, and Cajun.

Such is the constant re-invention, over a century and more, of musical spacetime in southern Louisiana. Every year the vessel lands at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held in late April and early May. I attended this year’s seven-day, beer-food-dance-music party, the forty-fifth. The show decamps at the city’s fairgrounds/racecourse, its tent enclosures and open-air stages enticing minions both tourist and local. With daily attendance at 60,000, the fest spreads out in its twelve venues, some small and intimate, others sunbaked and picnicky, featuring New Orleans jazz, blues, rock and roll, gospel, funk, and Cajun. In the hotspots where local players reign, you hear the dialogue that trad music has with a shrewd new generation of improvisers. Granted, the fest offers stages for the performance of jazz and other styles, which removes the music from its street, club, studio, and home venues. Much is showcased in outdoor spectacles vaster than the locals ever play. I did hear Springsteen, Clapton, Aguilera, and Arcade Fire, who ranged from medium rare to sizzling. But I paid much less attention to their record-mimicking safety. Instead, I devoted my “work” time to talking with players and scholars who describe the exchange of space, artist, and audience which nurtures and fuels that rapturous fire New Orleans improvisers are justly famous for.

“You Have to Know What’s Going to Happen” /

Negotiating outdoor spaces, indoor venues, musicians, and a mutable jazz tradition is the ken of Tulane University’s ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny and his bedrock book of reportage and analysis, Roll with It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans. At the heart of it are musicians who roll out the riffs and pulses, shuffles and shouts, not only of their forebears but also of the crowds whose streets and clubs and houses have much to say about how and what bands play. The New Orleans sound communicates the auditory spaces and the mobile societies those spaces enclose—corner bar, graveyard, freeway underpass. “The sound,” Sakakeeny stresses, “is intended to communicate to the living and to the dead without recourse to language.”

Highest on Sakakeeny’s list of living subjects is the Rebirth Brass Band. In his opinion, Rebirth is the most evolved of contemporary local bands, mixing the parade style with progressive, mike-loud, pop, soul, and hip-hop instrumental and vocal music. At this year’s Jazz Fest, the group’s rhythm section—Derrick Tabb, drums; Keith Frazier, bass drum, and Phil Frazier, sousaphone, the two brothers who founded Rebirth in 1983—held an off-stage interview to discuss how the eight-member band develops its repertoire.

To be a member, says Keith, one’s personality must fit the band. This, plus talent, plus exhibiting a “passion for what you’re doing,” plus “Can you hang with the band till three in the morning?” The musicianship of Rebirth’s members is symbiotic: you have to know your instrument, which requires a disciplined ego to learn, and you have to let go of or, at least, re-position, that ego during performance. Can you solo and, when necessary, locate your place in the group’s live exchanges? It’s not about practicing your part before the gig, Keith says. It’s about keeping the ensemble sound loose, improvising as soloists, as section players, as rappers. It’s about developing the sense, after years together, of what Keith calls “mental telepathy.”

The most intriguing element of Rebirth is their “not practicing… not rehearsing.” The band creates grooves by trying things out during sound-check with their bodies and horns, hearing tunes (on CDs or the radio) while traveling to shows in vans, and, most commonly, writhing cheek-to-jowl with participants during a second line parade. As Sakakeeny writes, in the street is where the band best “assesses the crowd’s response and modifies their performance—including fluctuations in tempo, beat, and choice of repertoire—to maximize crowd participation.” There’s no rehearsing a parade. It’s spontaneous.

Derrick Tabb tells a story about how the band reinvented a James Brown tune, “Talking Loud, Saying Nothing,” the day of a show. While driving to a gig in Portland, Oregon, Tabb and others heard this song on the radio. At the venue, he and another band member were told someone, a rival, had been trash-talking Rebirth: “I guess they were trying to put us down,” Tabb says, “because we at the top.” That night they launched a new groove-grinding version of Brown’s song. The crowd went wild. Not unexpected. But Tabb was dissatisfied. He found their rendition “boring.”

The next day, another band member, trombonist Stafford Agee, told Tabb that if he was bored with the change-up they’d made, then he should invent a new pattern no one had played before. So Tabb took the snare part and “extended the roll,” creating a mid-phrase tremolo of fifteen strokes. When Tabb offered this military-style pattern the next night for the band, live, and Phil Frazier laid down a calming bottom of whole notes, the band retooled James Brown’s song into something incandescently their own.

Because their personalities are so attuned to each other, Tabb says, at times he and Keith “make Phil go the way we want him to go. We say, ‘Phil, this where we at right now,’ and he say, ‘OK, I’m right here.’ Before you know it, [the improv] gels into something unique. There is no right way to put it: there is no, ‘You have to play like this or you have to play like that.’ It’s just us feeling each other.”

Any touring musician who plays night after night a list of hits or requests has to change it up. At the Jazz Fest, with Rebirth on the outdoor Congo Square stage before 5,000 people, their rhythmic recalculations push the crowd until the gyrating mass tells the band where they, maybe the front half of the 5,000, want to go. It’s a subtle call-and-response—a sudden altered riff by Tabb on the snare, in the middle of a sax solo, takes the group a new direction because Tabb has deduced it from the throng. That’s the feeling. In Sakakeeny’s study, Keith notes, “We never talk, there’s no communication—you just have to know what’s going to happen. That’s why I say New Orleans brass band music is one of the most improvisational type musics you have.”

Each band member must know what will happen collectively. One player changes direction and the others follow at once like a turning school of fish.

Amazing: You have to know what’s going to happen. Alongside the predictable tropes of speed, dynamics, and a litany of brass riffs (often changed-up live), each band member must know what will happen collectively. One player changes direction and the others follow at once like a turning school of fish. Yet another reason why musicians, no matter the music, sound better when they have improvised together, say, a thousand gigs. To begin in one place and then move on a dime—when an audience leans into a new beat or a player gets bored—captures the symbiotic serendipity of the New Orleans style.

Mobilizing Music and Space /

On a mid-fest off-day, I meet with Matt Sakakeeny, who quickly settles in a wooden wingback chair in his light-filled office at Tulane. Youthful, even boyish, Dr. Sakakeeny seems a perpetual grad student, way past normative time, who bifurcates his points, his mind as quick as a hawk on the hunt. A musicologist and musician, he came to New Orleans in 1996 and bumped one night into Rebirth, playing in a club on Freret Street, near the college. He was wowed by a clutch of mostly white college kids dancing and singing to Rebirth’s music. The wiry-haired prof, who knew what traditional brass band music was “supposed to sound like,” says the tunes he heard that night were “completely changed-up.” He was transfixed. “If you can sit still [through that beat], there’s something wrong with you.”

He tells me that “the freedom to improvise something new in the old is built into New Orleans music.” How far can a young player get from the tried-and-true? Brass bands today, he says, garner attention not because they refashion the tradition. Rather, they are valued for their hip-hop orbits, their ability, so to speak, to crowd-source the music live. (Recordings and club venues make electronically-amplified vocals de rigueur; rap lyrics dominate message-oriented hip-hop.) But tradition persists: older players insist that their unblemished counterparts learn, say, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” if for no other reason than employment opportunities. They need to play dirges and trad tunes to get funeral, parade, and tourist gigs. Sakakeeny says this is so for two reasons.

“One is so they have a respectful place in the tradition, maintain it and keep it alive. And [the other is] the older songs are different. The tuba, back then, had a different role. It had to lay down the root of the chord changes,” because the bands did tunes based on chord changes. “Today’s music,” he continues, “is much more riff-based. You have a tuba with a little melody that’s repeated over and over. It’s very funky, and the audience loves that, but the older musicians don’t respect it—it means you don’t understand harmony.”

Sakakeeny insists that the vast brass band registry is “people’s music,” a style that “remains vital because it adapts to each generation,” musicians and participants.

Enter trad musicians, like Dr. Michael White, who teach young Turks harmony and how to solo collectively. In one case, White schooled a club favorite, the New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band. By their own admission, the eight wanted to learn the basics to secure gigs in Europe, where crowds cotton to the old style. As Sakakeeny writes, the band sought to be “more fluent in traditional repertoire and performance practices.” The immersion deepens one horizontally, he says. A player becomes “socialized” into the vast catalogue of New Orleans brass band music, which he carries for his benefit and that of mentors, club owners, and worldwide audiences.

Call this musical literacy: not the ability to read music, because some New Orleans musicians remain oral learners, especially with today’s hip-hop records, a library via earbuds. Sakakeeny insists that the vast brass band registry is “people’s music,” a style that “remains vital because it adapts to each generation,” musicians and participants. Either a band appeals to an audience or its listeners walk away. The audience pushes the renditions as much as the venue does. An example. Playing a parade, Rebirth typically pauses to retool “under the bridge,” the dozens of I-10 overpasses, which, by design, snake through the poorer parts of the Crescent City. These natural amphitheaters are rallying points where their brassy peal is loudest and the crowd collects into a congregation.

Here’s a pure instance in New Orleans jazz of how auditory space as well as “sound facilitates relations between people.” Sakakeeny tells of a Rebirth funeral procession and second-line parade he followed in 2007. The parade stops outside a boarded-up bar and Rebirth abruptly switches to a slow dirge. The tempo and volume drop dramatically. The Steppers [the social club who’ve hired the musicians] huddle together near the band. Tears stream down some of the men’s faces. They call the band closer and the crowd encircles them, hushed by a change in the atmosphere initiated by musical dynamics.

It’s a powerful moment: such hallowed places deserve respect. Perhaps a club member wants the spot and the moment memorialized: such respect manifests via musical introspection. “Musicians continually assess their surroundings,” Sakakeeny writes, “and work to regulate the movement of the parade as they mobilize us [the participants] across space.” Here the negotiation is between band and crowd and place, a complex tangle of musical and cultural improv, which, Sakakeeny admits, no one knows when or how it happens. It’s definitely not the result of musicians performing for an audience on any given stage. One very old custom still rules: the ritual, born of the African diaspora, is one in which a community enacts its improvisational identity through music and, thus, values itself.

This is the first in a two-part series. Read part two here.

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books, the most recent, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader and Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His blog, “Mysteries of the Heart,” runs at Psychology Today. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.

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